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Book Review – Jungle Nama by Amitav Ghosh

Last year when Cyclone Amphan struck the eastern coast of India, West Bengal witnessed destruction unforeseen in the last two centuries. Experts said, had it not been for the mangroves of Sundarbans, the devastation would have been manifold. Even before Amphan, these mangroves have been acting as a natural shield from widespread destruction time and again.

While there is science behind the ‘protective shield’ of mangroves, locals in Sundarbans believe it is the mercy of Bon Bibi that keeps them alive. Bon Bibi (or the Lady of the Forests) is a mythical figure who is considered as the protector of the realms of the Sundarbans. Bon Bibi is worshipped and revered by Hindus and Muslims alike, which makes her cult even more fascinating.

Amitav Ghosh’s latest work ‘Jungle Nama’ is a retelling of the lore of Bon Bibi. Based loosely on the Bonbibi’r Johurnama (composed by Munshi Mohammad Kathir and Abdur Rahim Sahib) the Jnanpith award winning author tells us the story of Dukhe, and how he was blessed by Bon Bibi in the face of adversity – Dokkhin Rai.

Bon Bibi is the great adversary of Dokkhin Rai (the Lord of the South). Rai is a shape-shifter spirit who takes the form of a tiger to prey on the inhabitants of the Sundarbans. Allah sends Bonbibi to end Dokkhin Rai’s. However, instead of killing Dokkhin Rai, Bon Bibi demarcates the area beyond which he cannot harm any life form. To this day, the people of Sundarbans worship Bon Bibi from the jungle’s many dangers.

To recreate an epical tale, written in the Bengali dwipodi-poyar (two-footed line) meter, in English, is no mean feat. Amitav Ghosh does it with brilliance as he retains the lyrical flavor of the centuries-old poem in a completely new language. In ‘Jungle Nama’ every line has, on average, twelve syllables, each couplet has twenty four. And every line has a natural break. The retention of Arabic/Persian and Bengali words at places adds to the charm of reading.

An idol of Bon Bibi at a local temple in Sundarbans

Another reason why ‘Jungle Nama’ easily wins your heart is the illustration by Salman Toor. From Dhona’s greed to the fearsome ambience of the jungle of Dokkhin Rai, or the triumph of Dukhe – it all comes alive in Toor’s paintings. Even the cover design is mysterious and fearsome – succinctly encapsulating what Sundarbans stands for.

While pre-ordering the book, I was torn between the Kindle edition and the print edition. I am glad I chose the print edition, because ‘Jungle Nama’ is indeed a collector’s item.

My Rating: 4/5 Stars

Book Review: ‘So Now You Know – A Memoir of Growing Up Gay in India’ by Vivek Tejuja

“So when did you realise you are gay?”

“Who plays the role of woman when you do it?”

“Hi. You from? Your pic please. Do you have place?”

Aren’t we all tired of these same old clichéd questions, that keep coming our way, whether we like them or not? Don’t we all have those moments when we just want to simply scream ‘STFU’ from the rooftop and move on with life? Haven’t we all been through times when all we wanted was to hookup badly, and felt a deep sense of void grip us during the act?

If your answers to all those questions have been ‘yes’ – Congratulations. You are gay, and you know it.

Reading through ‘So Now You Know – A Memoir of Growing Up Gay in India’ by Vivek Tejuja, one could not help wondering how similar, yet different, our lives have been. Growing up in a joint family, being bullied in school, hetero-normative relatives who took it upon themselves to scare effeminism out of you, finding solace in books, the random hook-ups while longing for that one true love to come in your life, the penchant for opening up to those you love, the dejection when your friends become distant when they discover you are different – we have all been through life.

Vivek’s book took me back in time – having a crush on Dino Morea or Milind Soman and not having anyone to share it with, the straight friend in school whose company you found solace in, but he never reciprocated the feelings, trying to convince myself I can have feelings for girls – and lying about having a crush on a classmate to friends, the online chatrooms where strangers became acquaintances, blind dates, awkward hook-ups, insatiable urge to get into the pants of a hot ‘straight’ guy at the pub, falling for the guy who would ultimately let you down – been there done that.

His writing is so conversational that I almost felt like we were actually sitting by the sea at some coffee shop and discussing our lives. Vivek’s book is cathartic to an extent, too. It makes you look back in time and admit to the mistakes you could have rectified, or the sweet nothings you could cling on to.

Vivek came out to his family. I haven’t (well, my friends, colleagues and some of my cousins know). I never understood the deal with ‘coming out’. But then again, to not be able to share your ‘self’ with the people who matter makes life elusive and intangible. One cannot empathise enough with him, for not being able to share his ‘truth’ with his father – man to man.

Identities and stereotypes don’t define who we are. But they exist, may be for a reason. Sexuality is hardly the identity to label someone by. But in this world it sticks to your existence. It is our choice whether we want to live by it. In this endless search for life and love, we must first come to terms with ourselves. And Vivek surely has lived his life on his own terms.

‘So Now You Know’ connects with you on a personal level; the honesty behind the words give meaning to the feelings left unsaid. With so little ‘queer literature’ in India, I am sure this book will inspire many to come forward and share their stories. May be then we would truly be emancipated and inclusive.

My Rating: 4/5 stars

DISCLAIMER: All Images Used In This Post Have Their Respective Copyrights

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